In the early 1990s it felt as if the Israeli Left had won. In 1992, the first election I ever voted in, Meretz won 12 Knesset seats. A year later Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo agreements. At that time, my IDF unit was working on a just and fair distribution of water resources between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Syria. We believed the conflict was about to end.
The Right did not accept defeat.
The Left often argues that the Right murdered Rabin and with him our progressive future. But this a partial and biased narrative. The truth is that even before Rabin’s murder, the Right had devised a strategy to win back public opinion.
Funded by American Jewish conservatives, they established think tanks, like the Shalem College, the Institute for Zionist Strategies and the Kohelet Policy Forum, which present policy analyses and pump out right-wing talking points.
Simultaneously, Jewish American conservatives got into the business of funding right-wing media, leadership programs, pre-military academies and religious education groups. Today, when you enter an Israeli government building, most of the officials you meet are religious Zionists. American conservatives also paid for their economic, political and social education. A secular Israeli school principal is now much more likely to find lecturers on Jewish identity or values in a settlement than on a kibbutz.
After Rabin’s murder, the Right focused on building ideological infrastructures that offered alternative analysis and trained new leaders to take back the country. They were extremely successful.
The Israeli Left is currently facing a crisis similar to the Right’s in the early 1990s. The political currents have turned against it. The country is rapidly shifting away from progressive values. Yet instead of following the Right’s example and getting involved in building an ideological infrastructure, American progressive Jews are primarily funding organizations that criticize Israel’s human rights record, rather than building community leadership or offering alternatives to current policies.
There are exceptions, of course. The New Israel Fund, for example, supports Molad and Mitvim, but these are relatively recent developments. Most progressive Israeli organizations working on steering public opinion on the ground receive little or no financial support from diaspora Jews. Secular pre-military academies like Galil Elion or Rabin, which train youth in Zionist humanistic leadership, and grassroots organizations like Green Course, which organizes students in mass support of social-environmental justice, receive neither recognition nor support from abroad.
While the Israeli Left is rebuilding itself from within, reconnecting with communities, organizing mass demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu’s gas deal, unionizing 150,000 workers since 2008, and forcing the right-wing government to extend public education to three-year-olds, progressive American Jews are mourning the death of Israeli democracy and reconciling themselves to a demographic shift that, in their estimation, has made the Left obsolete.
But Israel has an abundance of organizations building rainbow coalitions that transcend tribal identities and undermine the analysis pointing to demography as the Left’s death knell. Under the umbrella of Koach La Ovdim, for example, Arab and Jewish bus drivers have joined forces around their common interests to create a shared union.
The thing is, the Israeli Left needs our help. We should learn from the remarkable success of the conservative American Jews who transformed Israeli politics in a mere two decades. Take the Tikvah Fund. As Zachary Braiterman masterfully showed, Tikvah Fund executives have a medium- and long-term strategy to realize their goals: “If educational programs are the essential long-term investment, think tanks, small magazines, books and other free-standing institutions are the best middle-term investment, especially if the aim is to develop and disseminate ideas.”
Accordingly, in order to affect the long-term trajectory, the Fund identifies potential young leaders and establishes exclusive leadership programs like the Tikvah Summer Institute for High School Students and the Tikvah Fellowship. In Jerusalem, the Fund finances the Shalem College, a right-wing think tank that backs Netanyahu’s agenda. Its scholars pump out right-wing talking points and on occasion participate in political academic purges, like the attempt to shut down Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government because of its leftist tendencies. According to its 2014 tax records, the Tikvah Fund also supported four leadership programs, three of which are located in settlements in the occupied territories, the right-wing “public policy” website “Mida,” and the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
It’s time to reevaluate where we really stand, take a cue from the Right, and build the necessary structures to reclaim Israel for justice, equality and peace. The change is not going to be instantaneous. So let’s stop beating our chests in mourning and focus on long-term strategy — starting with supporting grassroots rainbow coalitions organizing Jew and Arabs, religious and secular, Sephardi and Mizrahi and Ashkenazi around common interests.
Maya Haber is the Director of Development and Programming at Partners for Progressive Israel.
Maya Haber is an American-Israeli activist living in Pittsburgh, PA. She earned a PhD in history at the University of California Los Angeles. She writes and lectures about American Jewish impact in Israel, Israeli internal politics and social justice in Israel. Maya teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.